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Rice: Arabs fear Iraq sectarian violence spillover
Updated: 2006-02-25 09:33

Arab states fear sectarian violence in Iraq could spill over to their countries, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Friday while flying home from a tour of the Middle East.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice smiles during her meeting with United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan in Abu Dhabi, February 23, 2006. [Reuters]
Rice blamed al Qaeda for the bombing which ignited Iraqi sectarian violence that has left 200 people dead in Baghdad alone over the past three days. She acknowledged the violence posed a threat to Iraq's political process and took small comfort from the limited achievements of her latest trip.

She suggested that al Qaeda planted the explosives, which on Wednesday blew up an important Shi'ite mosque in the Iraqi town of Samarra and sparked a spate of vicious attacks against clerics, mosques and ordinary people.

"There is a concern that the sectarian tensions that outsiders are stoking in Iraq -- that those same outsiders might try and stoke sectarian tensions in other parts of the region," she said before a refueling stop in Ireland.

The dozens of reprisal attacks on minority Sunni mosques have stalled talks on a national unity government that U.S. President George W. Bush says is the key to the stability that would let him bring home 130,000 American troops.

"This is an extremely hard and extremely delicate moment obviously for the Iraqis, there has been a strike against Iraqi unity," Rice said.

"This makes it harder today and perhaps tomorrow, but I am confident the Iraqis are committed to, dedicated to the formation of a national unity government."

A daytime curfew in Baghdad and calls for Muslim unity from mosques across the country on Friday eventually damped down sectarian violence on the Muslim day of prayer.

Three years ago, Rice was a leading advocate for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, alongside other Bush administration officials who dismissed critics that said toppling then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would eventually invite a civil war.

On Friday, her plane flew over a country whose infrastructure remains in tatters, whose people live in fear of the bullets and bombs which regularly kill at random and where a Sunni-led insurgency makes governance next to impossible.

U.S. troops in Iraq have no date to return home. Casualties and domestic pressure for them to come home are both rising.


Rice's trip to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates also underscored the flagging influence of a Bush administration that is unpopular in the Arab world.

On a tour whose goal was to persuade Arab governments to isolate Hamas and Iran, the United States appeared nearly alone in its hard line against both adversaries.

Arab powerbrokers, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, rejected Rice's appeal for them to deny aid to Hamas, the militant group which swept Palestinian elections in January and has been asked to form the next Palestinian government.

Hamas -- whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel -- is expected to take power in a few weeks and has treated threats to pull U.S. aid to the Palestinian government with diffidence. The group has been labeled a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union
No country has pledged it will follow the U.S. policy to withhold aid as soon as Hamas forms a government, according to U.S. officials lobbying for such action.

Rice had to settle for Arab countries agreeing to press Hamas to seek peace with Israel, even though they avoided warning of any consequences should the group remain unmoved.

And while they expressed some concern over the potential for a nuclear-armed Iran, the countries shunned Rice's call to threaten the Islamic republic with isolation if it fails to dispel Western suspicions it is building an atomic bomb.

With Russia, China and many developing countries also resisting the U.S. drive for international sanctions against Iran, only the European Union has moved close to Washington.

While few countries are threatening to isolate Iran, Rice said the world agreed the country should curb its nuclear programs.

"That international consensus is sincere," she said.

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